Root of youth riots demand, not management

By Dr Sarah Wise, University of Melbourne and Berry Street Good Childhood Fellow.

Spectacular incident and response scenes at the Parkville youth justice precinct have sparked a lot of talk in the community on how to manage serious and violent acting-out behavior and offending by a small number of young people in Victoria. Predictably, the voice of ‘tough on crime’ populism has been at high volume.

Before we snap to punitive responses, it’s worth understanding the true complexity behind these events and youth crime more generally, as well as the systemic approach to youth justice that we have in place already.

Increased capacity is needed across a range of government services to better match demand and supply, and Secure Services provided by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services are no exception.

Capacity constraints, especially those caused by escalating rates of young people held in remand (approximately three-quarters of all clients) is an identified challenge for the Parkville youth justice precinct. A key response to these changing circumstances has been capital investment to improve service infrastructure to more adequately meet demand for such a facility.

Overcrowding can create stress, and exacerbate the anger, anxiety, fear and loss of identity that young people feel when they are held in custody. The problems that young people present with at youth detention centres are also getting tougher to safely manage. Serious mental health issues and the effects of psychostimulants such as the drug ‘ice’ challenge traditional ways of working and increase the risk of disturbances involving hostile and aggressive behavior.

Efforts to speed up plans to redevelop the Parkville precinct will reduce triggers for challenging situations while ongoing implementation of trauma-informed behavior management techniques will help prevent escalation of problems requiring crisis intervention responses.

Custody is not an effective intervention for youth crime – indeed it has the potential to increase the young person’s criminal network and experience of criminal behaviours. Young people learn from other young people. But when custodial options are necessary, infrastructure developments should enable a more effective delivery of programs and services that have been evolving on-site for some time to help young people through treatment and education and out of prisons permanently.

Youth participation processes that build empowerment, a rigorous, specialist on-site education program delivered by Parkville College, new ventures into vocational training and comprehensive, family-systems focused supports are some of the approaches used to address the complex, underlying issues that lead to youth offending and build bridges towards community reintegration.

These programs and approaches blend well with enhanced security and safety measures, as it is only within an environment of safety can young people with vulnerabilities begin to make significant changes in their lives.

Addressing demand for youth justice services also requires a population focus on social ills such as substance abuse, family violence, child sex abuse and economic inequality that finds socially corrosive expression in youth offending.

Helping extremely complex and high risk young offenders and changing the opportunities and status of disadvantaged young people is hard work, and in many respects we are still far from getting the solution absolutely right.

Yet, our best chance of bringing current events under control and addressing the serious problem of youth crime is to stay the progressive course, weather the fits and starts that inevitably accompany social change, while continuing to expand and improve our models and approaches over time.

Drawing on the enormous experience inside and outside the youth justice system, which includes listening to, and acting on, the experience of young offenders themselves, is key to such a developmental approach. Leadership and community capacity to combat wicked problems and divert young people away from detention is also critical.

We must never give up on young people and deny them the chance to develop life pathways that have hope and meaning. Positive futures from which all society benefits.


childhoodinstituteassociate_drsarahwiseDr Sarah Wise is the University of Melbourne and Berry Street Good Childhood Fellow. In this role Sarah brings extensive experience in child development, research, social policy and complex interventions to produce evidence and social innovations that improve the lives of children with vulnerabilities.

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